Current weather

  • Scattered clouds
  • 54°
    Scattered clouds

Year of mixed blessings

Agrium announcing closure ends 2004 on low note

Posted: Friday, December 31, 2004

 

Back | Next
  Starkweather

Agrium's efforts to keep an adequate supply of economically priced natural gas for its Nikiski plant, and the company's announcement of a pending closure, was one of the Kenai Peninsula's major news stories for 2004.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

For better or worse, 2005 was a year of transition on the Kenai Peninsula, and the major news stories reflected that. As is often the case, good news and bad news sometimes went hand-in-hand as area residents watched times, people and situations change before their eyes.

News of a potential major gold mine across Cook Inlet was followed by the news that one of the area's largest employers was leaving town; an influx of cash from the state to local schools saved school sports, while a Nikiski elementary school closed due to declining enrollment; a strong year for commercial fishers was tempered by ongoing battles between user groups; Kenai's first female mayor was elected, but only after the city saw its longest-serving mayor retire from the top post.

Among the peninsula's major stories:

Gas woes

After a two-year legal battle, Agrium and Unocal in December announced they'd settled their differences. As a result of an out-of-court settlement, Unocal agreed to pay Agrium $25 million, as well as guarantee a supply of natural gas to Agrium's North Kenai nitrogen plant through October 2005. However, the announcement was quickly followed by news that Agrium would close the facility following the 2005 date.

The news came as a major blow to area residents and government officials, as Agrium represents a sizable chunk of Kenai Peninsula Borough property tax revenues and employs approximately 230 full-time workers. As 2004 came to a close, the biggest question on everyone's mind remained how the area will cope with the loss of such an important part of the central peninsula economy.

 

Seward, Alaska, musher Mitch Seavey holds his lead dog Zebra at the finish line of the Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race in Nome, Alaska, on March 16, 2004, after winning the 1,100 mile sled dog race on his 11th try. The Kenai Peninsula underdog won the race in nine days, 12 hours and 20 minutes.

AP Photo/Al Grillo

In with the new

On Oct. 5, Kenai residents elected Kenai City Council member Pat Porter to the post of mayor, a job that had been held by John Williams for the previous 17 years. Porter beat out fellow council member Jim Bookey to become the city's first female mayor.

One month later, a fierce wind storm that knocked out power to much of the central peninsula didn't keep area residents from turning out at the polls to support their favorite candidates. When the dust finally settled, it was a Republican sweep, as District Q (Kenai) incumbent Sen. Tom Wagoner returned to Juneau along with District 34 (Nikiski-Sterling) Rep. Mike Chenault. Both Wagoner and Chenault won easily over independent challengers. In addition, Republican Kurt Olson, a former Soldotna City Council member, beat out Kenai Democrat Hal Smalley by a 3-2 margin to take the District 33 (Kenai-Soldotna) state House seat.

Mushing success

Mitch Seavey, a peninsula underdog, drove his dog team for nine days, 12 hours and 20 minutes to win the 2004 Iditarod Trail Sled Dog Race by more than two hours and 20 minutes ahead of his closest competitor.

Seavey was presented with a $69,000 check, a Dodge pickup valued at more than $40,000 and the winner's trophy, a 95-pound bronze sculpture of Joe Redington Sr., and his lead dog, Feets.

Upon Seavey's return to the peninsula, Kenai Peninsula Borough Mayor Dale Bagley declared April 24 "Mitch Seavey Day" through an official proclamation.

 

Petterson

Big cases

Jamie Petterson, a 30 year-old Kenai man, was acquitted of murder charges stemming from an October 2002 vehicle crash on the Seward Highway that killed Anchorage couple Robert and Donna Weiser. The case attracted national attention after prosecutors charged that Petterson was guilty of murder because he was allegedly watching a DVD movie while driving at the time of the crash. Jurors deliberated for approximately five hours before returning the not guilty verdict.

Another Kenai man was the focus of another major Kenai Peninsula trial that ended with a different result. Justin Starkweather, 23, was found guilty in October of the sexual assault and attempted murder of a 46-year-old Soldotna woman in 2002. Starkweather is scheduled to be sentenced in February.

In the other major crime story, a rash of burglaries in Nikiski in February led to several community meetings and calls for an increased law enforcement presence on the North Road. However, area voters in October soundly defeated a measure that would have created a law enforcement service area board for the area.

 

Starkweather

Tight budgets

The spring brought bad news for schools, as the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District was forced to make $6.7 million in cuts to its budget in April. The proposed cuts included the elimination of cocurricular activities, including programs like sports, band and choir.

In June, however, the schools got a reprieve as the Alaska Legislature approved a $407 increase in per-student spending for the district, easing tight budgets and allowing the activities to be restored.

Despite the good funding news, one borough school still was shut down. The 40-year-old Nikiski Elementary was forced to close in May in order to deal with dwindling enrollment. Students from Nikiski Elementary were sent to North Star Elementary as the schools were consolidated after enrollment fell to less than half of capacity at both schools. The consolidation was estimated to save about $250,000 in operating costs.

New prospects

In March, word began to filter across the peninsula that a large deposit of gold had been discovered across Cook Inlet in the Iliamna region. As information began to come out, it became clear that the discovery by Northern Dynasty Minerals was for real.

The "Pebble" discovery is believed to be the largest contained gold and copper resource in North America, with the potential for as much as 600,000 ounces of gold production per year. As 2004 wore on, Kenai Peninsula Borough and local municipal officials alike began working with the mining companies to figure out how to best access the gold, provide power for a possible mine project and deal with the environmental issues involved with building a large-scale gold mine in an environmentally sensitive area.

Healthy ground

Ground was broken in June on a $49.9 million Central Peninsula General Hospital expansion project approved last year by borough voters. To be completed in three phases, the expansion will allow the hospital to replace 33 multipatient rooms with 50 single-patient rooms, add two surgery rooms, a sterile-procedure room and 16 outpatient rooms. By winter, CPGH CEO David Gilbreath said the expansion was going according to plan.

(Mostly) fun and Games

In October, visitors from the International Arctic Winter Games committee visited the central peninsula to gauge progress toward the 2006 Games, which will be hosted by the borough. The committee gave preparations for the Games a thumbs up, and it was announced during the visit that the Games host society had raised nearly half of the estimated $5.6 million needed to put on the international youth sporting and cultural event.

The October visit came just seven months after officials from the borough and host society traveled to Fort McMurray, Alberta, Canada, to watch the 2004 Games and get some pointers on how to host the event, which is expected to bring thousands of visitors and athletes to the peninsula during the week of March 3, 2006.

Despite the good news, however, questions still remain about planning for the event. The biggest hurdle still left appears to be deciding on what upgrades to make at the Kenai Multipurpose facility. At a meeting in December, city officials and host society representatives sparred over exactly what improvements will be made to the city-owned facility. In addition, the potential loss of volunteer hours and donations caused by the Agrium closure are likely to become issues during the coming year.

Salmon galore

Commercial fishers in Upper Cook Inlet had a good year, with an overall salmon harvest of 5.7 million fish. That number was approximately a half million more than expected and above the average catch for the area. Prices for those fish remained sluggish, however, with fishers getting roughly 60 cents per pound for sockeye salmon, which made up the majority (4.9 million) of the overall catch.

Despite the big catches, commercial fishers and biologists alike complained that too many fish were allowed to swim past the nets. They pointed to escapements in the Kenai and Kasilof rivers that exceeded goals set in statewide management plans, and complained that fisheries managers were unable to allow enough commercial fishing to take place because of Board of Fisheries-mandated regulations that put limits on emergency openings.

Soldotna snubbed

Fishers hoping to change Alaska fisheries policy at the Board of Fish level will have to travel to Anchorage to do so. The board in August voted 4-2 to hold its meeting on Cook Inlet issues in Anchorage as opposed to the Kenai Peninsula.

Following the vote, controversy arose over an e-mail submitted to the board by Kenai River Sportfishing Association Executive Director Ricky Gease that implied a meeting in Soldotna would be unsafe. Gease later apologized for the e-mail after Kenai-Soldotna residents complained that KRSA was trying to use scare tactics to influence board policy.

The board said security concerns were not part of its decision to hold the meeting in Anchorage, and that the decision was simply made in keeping with board policy.

The Board of Fish meeting is set to begin Jan. 16.

Byway no way

A push to designate the Sterling Highway from Skilak Lake Road south to Anchor Point as a National Scenic Byway went by the wayside in August, after the Kenai Peninsula Borough Assembly failed to lend its support to the state designation - a crucial step needed for national consideration.

Supporters of the plan had argued the designation would bring increased tourists to the area, but the assembly was swayed by arguments that the designation could lead to increased land-use restrictions along the highway corridor.

Building a bridge?

The on-again, off-again construction plans for a replacement Sterling Highway bridge in Soldotna appeared to be on again as the year came to a close, with state officials in October completing the bid process for the $28 million project. Washington-based Wilder construction was awarded the bid and construction is expected to begin in spring 2005.

The state had originally planned to begin the project to build a five-lane span across the river to replace the existing two-lane bridge in spring 2004, but delays caused by a right-of-way dispute with a private landowner slowed the project.

Economy of the future

In January, the Kenai Economic Development Strategy group was formed through a partnership between the city of Kenai and the Kenai Chamber of Commerce. This task force, made up of 23 Kenai area residents, worked throughout the year on the issue of developing a long-term economic strategy for the city. In November, the group reported back to the Kenai City Council with preliminary results generated in their meetings. The findings included a plan to develop Millennium Square, a large parcel of city land on the Kenai bluff, into a town center that would include a convention center, sidewalks, a Native heritage center, businesses and trails. The group also completed a report on its work and plans to continue its mission throughout the coming year.

New carrier doesn't fly

Kenai Express, a small commuter airline based at the Kenai Airport, promised to bring increased competition to the central peninsula air travel market when it began operations in June with daily flights to Anchorage. However, by September the new carrier had ceased operations and closed up shop at the airport, again leaving Era Aviation as the only commuter operation at the Kenai airport.

Helmet laws

The May death of Bobby Bushnell, a 10-year-old Kenai boy who was struck by a car and killed while riding his bicycle without a helmet, led to the introduction of an ordinance in the city requiring all children under the age of 18 to wear a helmet while riding any wheeled vehicle. The ordinance was later modified by the council to only apply to children under the age of 16 and passed by a 4-3 vote - but only after a lengthy debate that pitted personal freedom advocates against those who felt the law was in the interest of public safety. The ordinance went into effect in September.

A similar law was proposed in Soldotna, but has yet to win council approval. The council in December tabled until February consideration of a law similar to Kenai's after the original ordinance provoked a similar debate as was held in Kenai.

Dog trouble

Sig Stormo, a Funny River musher, had his dogs removed by the Alaska Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals in June after Alaska State Troopers called them believing the dogs had been abandoned.

Stormo was located working at a remote location in Kodiak, and said he had left his dogs to be cared for by a cousin. After investigation by troopers, the Kenai district attorney's office opted not to file charges of animal cruelty or neglect against Stormo.

The AKSPCA held his dogs in limbo for more than 70 days, before ultimately returning them free of charge. Stormo returned to Kodiak with the animals, but days later was contacted by troopers after failure to provide shelter to the dogs. He subsequently relinquished all but three of the 15 huskies to Kodiak animal control.

 

Students at Nikiski Elementary School sift through surplus books in the school's library on the last day of classes in the structure last spring. Efforts to deal with dwindling cash occupied officials with the Kenai Peninsula Borough School district the past year.

Photo by M. Scott Moon

Tight budgets

The spring brought bad news for schools, as the Kenai Peninsula Borough School District was forced to make $6.7 million in cuts to its budget in April. The proposed cuts included the elimination of cocurricular activities, including programs like sports, band and choir.

In June, however, the schools got a reprieve as the Alaska Legislature approved a $407 increase in per-student spending for the district, easing tight budgets and allowing the activities to be restored.

Despite the good funding news, one borough school still was shut down. The 40-year-old Nikiski Elementary was forced to close in May in order to deal with dwindling enrollment.

Students from Nikiski Elementary were sent to North Star Elementary as the schools were consolidated after enrollment fell to less than half of capacity at both schools. The consolidation was estimated to save about $250,000 in operating costs.

Clarion reporters Joseph Robertia, Phil Hermanek, Jenny Neyman, Layton Ehmke and Hal Spence contributed to this story.



CONTACT US

  • 150 Trading Bay Rd, Kenai, AK 99611
  • Switchboard: 907-283-7551
  • Circulation and Delivery: 907-283-3584
  • Newsroom Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Business Fax: 907-283-3299
  • Accounts Receivable: 907-335-1257
  • View the Staff Directory
  • or Send feedback

ADVERTISING

SUBSCRIBER SERVICES

SOCIAL NETWORKING

MORRIS ALASKA NEWS